Florida prison system, workers tangle over shift changes

Photo credit: RICHARD BOUHET/AFP via Getty Images

As Florida’s corrections department grapples with deadly coronavirus outbreaks, staff shortages and high turnover rates, a drawn-out legal battle over changes to prison workers’ shifts is escalating.

The latest legal twists come as the Florida Department of Corrections on Friday will move forward with the switch from 12-hour to 8.5-hour shifts at 17 prisons, despite objections from the union representing correctional officers and a Leon County judge.

The move to convert to shorter shifts “follows numerous national studies that have shown 8.5-hour shifts will reduce officer fatigue and create safer conditions for both staff and inmates,” corrections officials said in an email Thursday.

But leaders of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which for years has butted heads with the state over the issue, predicted the reduction will further demoralize an already embittered work force in the midst of a pandemic.

“The staff is miserable. They talk about how unfairly they’re treated,” Jim Baiardi, president of the state corrections chapter of the PBA, told The News Service of Florida. “I don’t know how they think this is going to be better. I’ve asked them to wait until our court battles are over. Why stress the officers out when they’re stressed to the max?”

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last year ruled that state officials don’t have the authority to initiate the shift changes without first negotiating with the union.

The wrangling over work hours stems from changes initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. Corrections officials maintain shift-hour modifications are necessary to save money and make prisons safer.

The Legislature in March earmarked more than $17 million in the 2020-2021 state budget to start the reduction in shift hours at about a quarter of the prisons operated by the department. The appropriation included funding for an additional 220 workers to address the changes in an understaffed agency struggling to retain and recruit employees.

The lawmakers’ action this spring coincided with a ruling by Dodson in March that cemented an earlier decision saying the Department of Corrections violated the constitutional rights of prison employees by “unilaterally” changing their work days without first negotiating with the union. The state asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn Dodson’s ruling, a move that led to his decision being put on hold.

As Friday’s launch of the new schedule loomed, the PBA on Monday again asked the circuit court to block the corrections department from moving ahead with the shift changes.

Prison workers “have shaped their lives around working a 12-hour day,” lawyers for the union argued.

Monday’s lawsuit is the union’s latest attempt to quash the shift changes, with the PBA also seeking relief from the Public Employee Relations Commission. Those cases, as well as the appeal of Dodson’s ruling, are pending.

The PBA in this week’s lawsuit argued against lawmakers’ use of budget fine print known as “proviso” language to sidestep collective bargaining with the union.

The Florida Supreme Court “has previously stricken proviso language which attempted to re-organize a state agency using the ‘hidden recesses of the general appropriations act,’” the union’s lawyers wrote.

“Proviso language which attempted to mandate changes to public policy or amend general law have also been stricken,” they added.

The issue of corrections employees’ work shifts “is a contested matter of public policy,” which is the subject of arbitration and litigation, they wrote.

“The Florida Legislature is therefore prohibited from, under the guise of an appropriation, inserting proviso language which establishes a new policy project (8.5 hr shifts) incidental to the appropriation,” the union’s lawyers wrote.

Stephanie Webster, the PBA’s general counsel, called the shift changes “shameful.”

“If the Legislature can come in in proviso language and just set our hours of work, it basically makes our collective bargaining process totally irrelevant,” she said in an interview this week.

The union has pleaded with the state to wait until the litigation is finished before beginning shift-hour changes, union leaders said.

“I begged them. I tried to get them to do everything,” Baiardi said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said Thursday the agency is working to accommodate employees requesting transfers to or from the 17 prisons where the shift changes will begin on Friday.

The timing of the shift-hour reductions comes as corrections officers are under increasing pressure after widespread COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the prison system.

Nearly 3,000 of the state’s approximately 24,000 prison workers and almost 16,000 inmates have tested positive for the highly contagious disease. At least three corrections employees and 117 inmates have died of complications related to the disease, according to the state,

Prison officials, however, maintain that the shift reductions are a critical element in plans to bolster the agency.

“As I have shared previously, I and your senior leadership are convinced this change is one of the most essential moves our agency can make to help you achieve a positive personal and family/work-life balance and reduce the unsustainable attrition rate of new staff across our agency,” Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch wrote in a memo to staff on July 2, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the state budget.

The shift-hour changes are a key element of the agency’s attempts to recruit and retain prison workers, Inch has said.

In advocating for the reduced-hour shifts, corrections department leaders have echoed arguments similar to those made when they rolled out 12-hour shifts in 2012: safer prisons and a happier work force.

Nearly a decade later, corrections officials now blame longer shifts for problems in the system.

“After moving to a 12-hour schedule, the department has experienced numerous issues directly related to extended shifts, including increases in separations of staff, use of force incidents, contraband, violent incidents and more,” the department said in a legislative budget proposal released in November.

The union’s current bargaining agreement with the state limits prison employees working 12-hour shifts to a maximum of 16 consecutive work hours. The agreement also requires employees who work 12-hour days along with extended shifts to be given a minimum of eight hours before returning to work. The agreement, however, does not include a consecutive-hour cap for corrections officers who are scheduled to work other shifts.

Union leaders accuse corrections officials of using the shift changes to avoid responsibility for other problems in the system, which houses more than 87,000 inmates, and to try to force corrections employees to work longer hours.

Webster said many correctional officers would forego a 3 percent pay hike for state workers, also included in the 2020-2021 budget bill, to retain their hourly schedules.

“I’ve never seen the officers more upset about anything,” the union’s general counsel said. “They’d rather have the 12 stay than get the raise. I think they’re just going to see people quitting left and right.”